The Gunfighter and the Heiress - By Carol Finch

Chapter One

Wolf Ridge, Texas, 1880s

“Go away.”

Donovan Crow groaned as he dragged the pillow from his head and listened to the persistent knocking at the door of his hotel suite.

“Can’t,” his friend and business manager called from the other side of the door in the sitting room. “You told me to wake you after you’d had a full day’s sleep.”

“Changed my mind,” he mumbled.

“You told me you’d say that, Van. Now I’m supposed to say, ‘Get up and open the damn door and do it now!’”

Muttering, he levered himself onto the side of the bed. He raked his hand through his disheveled raven hair and forced himself to stand upright. Sluggishly, he reached for his breeches. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been this tired. The past few weeks of riding back and forth on the Higgins Stagecoach Express line to stop the rash of robberies had taken its toll on him. Come to think of it, he should have told his business manager to let him hibernate for a week.

“Van? Are you up yet?” his friend called impatiently.

“More or less,” Van mumbled.

“Then open the blasted door. I have several telegrams and letters offering you jobs.”

Van strode from the bedroom to the sitting area to open the door. Bartholomew Collier stared at him all too cheerfully as he invited himself into the suite. Bart was two years younger than Van. He stood five foot eight and had a wiry build and tireless energy. He had curly brown hair, a broken nose and pale green eyes covered by wire-rimmed glasses. Van had saved Bart from disaster eight years earlier and in return he’d acquired a business manager and a friend for life.

Since then, Bart had handled the steady flow of paperwork that arrived at Van’s hotel headquarters. He hadn’t thought that advertising himself as a gun for hire would bring in so much business, but he was bombarded constantly with jobs.

“You look like hell,” Bart observed as he plunked himself down in the chair, then dropped the stack of letters and telegrams on the table near the window.

“Thanks. Sure would hate to look better than I feel.” Van strode over to pour himself a glass of water to lubricate his parched throat. He wished it were that easy to cure all the aches and pains caused by bouncing around on the inside of a stagecoach for days on end.

“Oh, almost forgot.” Bart bounded up like a jackrabbit and sailed from the room. He returned two minutes later with a heaping tray of food, two cups of coffee and a bottle of whiskey.

Van arched a curious brow as he studied the food Bart set in front of him. “What time is it?”

“You mean what day is it?” Bart helped himself to a slice of bacon. “I let you sleep an entire day away, just as you requested.”

Van took a cautious sip of steaming coffee. “That last assignment was a bitch.” He narrowed his eyes at Bart. “Don’t sign me up for that kind of assignment again.”

Ever cheerful—damn him—Bart grinned, revealing the slight gap between his front teeth. “You sure about that? Think of all the money you made and the attention you received for arresting those two stagecoach robbers.”

Bart always insisted that Van demand high prices because he risked his life as a detective for railroads, stage lines and cattlemen battling rustlers. He also served as a personal bodyguard for the highbrows who traveled through wild country to reach their destinations on the east and west coasts.

Unfortunately, Van was rarely in town long enough to spend the money piling up. He had countless job offers but he didn’t have much of a life. Not that many whites invited him to social gatherings. He was the dispensable mixed-breed scout—detective and gun for hire who did his job, but was then quickly dismissed in favor of socially acceptable friends.

“Mr. Higgins is singing your praises to high heaven and you’ve received publicity in newspapers from Arizona to Louisiana. I should know,” Bart declared. “I subscribe to several of those papers so we can keep abreast of what’s going on. As for Mr. Higgins, he wants to pay you handsomely to keep you on retainer so you can put the fear of God in would-be outlaws trying to rob his coaches.”

Van snorted sourly, then sipped his drink. “Can’t stand that much confinement. What other jobs are waiting?” When Bart picked up a telegram, Van flung up his hand to forestall him. “And bear in mind that I